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Why no Quebec-style student protests in the rest of Canada?

There are a number of plausible reasons.

By LÉO CHARBONNEAU | January 29, 2013

I, like many others, was fascinated by the slogans, symbols and spectacle of Quebec’s mass student protests last year, known colloquially as the printemps érable, or maple spring. The conflict began as a protest against the then Liberal government’s plan to raise tuition fees by $325 a year for five years, which would have brought tuition to $3,800 a year when fully implemented by fall 2016 – a rise of roughly 75 percent. The Liberals under Premier Jean Charest called an election for Sept. 4 of last year and subsequently lost – in no small part due to the student protests – and the incoming Parti Quebecois government promptly cancelled the tuition hikes.

The protests garnered international attention, yet most Canadians outside Quebec remained essentially bystanders to the action. Some of the Quebec student leaders did tour outside the province to explain to other student groups what was happening and how to get involved, but the reality remains that the conflict was almost entirely a Quebec phenomenon. Although tuition fees are much higher in most Canadian provinces compared to Quebec, students in the rest of Canada have protested rising fees only sporadically and in no sustained way.

Why has there been so little echo of the Quebec protests among students in the rest of Canada? It’s an interesting question, and one which Laura Pin, a PhD student in political science at York University, valiantly tried to answer at the “Academia in the Age of Austerity” conference held earlier this month in Toronto (organized by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations). She was part of a panel of student leaders discussing “Quebec and beyond.” Prior to her grad studies, Ms. Pin worked as a research analyst on postsecondary education policy for the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance.

Ms. Pin suggested four factors accounting for a lack of action outside Quebec. The first involves what she called the “political opportunity” structure. There was a “clear initiating event” – the Charest government’s planned tuition hikes – which spurred students to action.  Speaking of Ontario, Ms. Pin noted that tuition increases have been persistent but incremental, so students haven’t quite faced the same “sticker shock” as those in Quebec. One commentator at the conference referred to this as the “boiling frog” metaphor.

Second, the Charest government was in its third mandate and was seen by many as tired and past its prime. Ms. Pin noted that the Liberals were sitting low in the opinion polls and reaching the end of their current mandate, and many wanted simply to see them go. The student protests were a great opportunity for opposition groups, in general, to oppose and weaken the government.

Third, there is a long history of social action in Quebec regarding postsecondary education going back to the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, resulting in major student mobilizations every few years.  As well, the tuition hikes were seen in Quebec as being part of broader social issues on equality and opportunity that were raised by the conflict. By contrast, in Ontario, Ms. Pin said there has been “lots of austerity rhetoric” for years now. Media coverage outside Quebec, as well, was “demeaning and vilifying” of the student protests. Plus, university education is increasingly being seen in Canada as a private benefit accruing to the individual, so tuition fees and student debt become more of a personal than a societal issue, she said.

Fourth, and finally, Ms. Pin hypothesized that high tuition in Ontario (and much of the rest of Canada) may in itself stifle protest because there is “more to lose” – i.e., the opportunity cost of protest is higher. Additionally, a high debt load and the necessity for many students to work part-time while studying can impede collective action, she said; it is harder for students with heavy workloads “to engage” with the issues. And, in Ontario, the way student assistance is structured, if you miss your classes you risk losing your financial support.

I think her points are all thoughtful and plausible. A cynic, however, might suggest that they seem more like excuses – in the sense of offering justifications for inaction – rather than causes. But that might be splitting hairs. I do know, however, that in light of recent budget cuts, there are those who would say the protests have been a disaster for Quebec’s universities, but that’s a discussion for another day.

What do you think? Why has there been so little student reaction outside Quebec?

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau has been the deputy editor of University Affairs since 2003. He started the Margin Notes blog in 2009 and it has gone on to win several awards, including Best Blog at the Canadian Online Publishing Awards.
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  1. Marc-André Roche / February 1, 2013 at 11:19 am

    It goes beyond the student protests and far beyond the students organizations.

    First, while the more “hardcore” protesters, following the lead of la CLASSÉ, kept the fire burning and were there every night in Montréal, they were only hundreds or a few thousands. The mass protests with hundreds of thousands of people occured every 22nd day of the month when the mainstream joined in.

    On Earth Day, April 22nd, we were a quarter of a million in Montréal and it had nothing to do with tuition fees: it was about environment. People of every age and every condition were part of it. The petition drew almost one million signatures.

    When protests have been outlawed, then began the frying pan protests: people on their balcony or spontaneously gattering on their street corner banging on a frying pan with a wooden spoon every night at 8pm: parents with their kids, seniors and youngsters, all together. And it was not only in Montréal; the same protests occured in just about every city in Québec (I have seen some in Sherbrooke and Limoilou, even in an upper-class suburb, Saint-Bruno-de-Montarville). Again, it had nothing to do with the so-called discipline of the students unions. One notable exception: none of these frying pan protests occured in english speaking neighborhoods in Montréal. Nothing in Westmount or NDG; nothing in the downtown neighbourhoods surrounding McGill or Concordia; nothing in the West Island, which makes me believe that we should consider some cultural factors such as the strong sense of belonging to the Québec society, which is obviously a collective feeling.

    Ten years ago, while it was freezing cold outside (-25 and windy), we were something like half a million in Montréal to protest against the war in Irak. In fact, per capita, no people in the world protested more than the Quebeckers. Again, the “discipline”, the strength of the organizations, the presence of workers unions, and other such explainations fail to explain it.

    I definitely believe it is a cultural caracter: a strong sense of belogning and the solidarity that comes with it and, since we are a minority people, the awareness (conscient or not) that we don’t control our political institutions and that we must make ourselves heard directly when it is important.

  2. Dan / January 30, 2013 at 2:03 pm

    A major point that has not been mentioned is the special law Bill 78 that was introduced by the Charest government in the 14th week of the student strike.
    The law was interpreted by many as being unjust and unconstitutional by using excessive regulations and fines in order to control gatherings and demonstrations.
    Thereafter the movement of contestation was not only being led by students: It garnered the support of lawyers, workers, housewives who protested the law seen as limiting civil rights, by walking down the streets making noise by hitting saucepans with wooden spoons. The movement spelled the beginning of the end for the Charest government in a tug of war that was going into a dead end…

  3. Noémie Bernier / January 29, 2013 at 10:53 pm

    This article is quite interesting, because it clearly shows a difference in the culture of Quebec compare to the rest of the Canada. On first sight, we could think, after reading this analysis, that the students in Quebec took advantage of a government that was about to change (referring here to the Liberal Party of Jean Charest) after his 2 other mandates… This is, on my point of view, a simplistic vision of what brought the population (most of it, I will not do generalization here, but I have to point out it was not only students) in the streets, claiming a cancellation of the student fee’s hike. I will not get into the details of the protest -which could bring me to argue for days!-, but i just wanted to share my opinion on this article and on the question. First, I think the author should have pushed the research further to better understand the reasons of that protest (at least, get the opinions of some of the students that were involved in that movement). Otherwise, about the question -As I said, I think it is a difference of culture and a difference of structure (in the system of education). We have to consider the fact that most of the Canadians (I will use this term here to refer at the rest of the Canada, to illustrate the divergence between the province and the rest of the country) do not indentify themselves to the Quebecers, due mostly to our different first language. Furthermore, it’s also a question about values -back in the 1960s the Revolution was based on common values, and education was one of these (our education system, with the colleges -or should I say, Cégep- is a big structural difference based on that value). The same movement was not seen in the other provinces (to decrease any interpretation : it could have happened). Maybe Quebecers realized (out of this Revolution but also through other protests) that there is one way to change things : get together and fight for what brings us together. Maybe that type of movement makes the Canadians to feel unidentified to Quebecers, but it would certainly need some further research! To conclude, I find important to point out that this article lead to a nice reflection on the student protest in Quebec from another point of view : how come that movement did not get that much of reactions in the other parts of the country? Thanks for sharing this!

  4. Sam / January 29, 2013 at 8:58 pm

    Discipline? You have to be kidding. The largest student union operates following the concept of direct democracy and has no leaders. How is that following leaders? Québec student unions compared to those of the ROC dont have their decisions taken by elected representatives, but by general assemblies. In the beginning of the strike the Cégep du Vieux-Montréal(independant from any unions) was occupied, no student union ever planned or approved it was just done.

    The mass actions were organised by the CLASSÉ which was the large coalition of the ASSÉ, which as i said before has no leaders and has its members vote on its plan of action… Victoriaville and the Salon Plan Nord were violent battlefields, you won’t make me believe elected “representatives” would have allowed that

  5. brigitte gravel / January 29, 2013 at 8:16 pm

    Paul Finch is using an extremist argument which is always used by non objective people ”the entire Quebec student movement was organized and led by “anarchists”
    but that is not true whatever he means by anarchist.
    It’s a shortcut Paul, not bad analysis just a lack of analysis.
    It was also, adding to Alex, point VI, a good timing to say we want to express ourselves, we have something to say, a kind of ”idle no more” before that movement. Idea, protest, power, doesn’t belong to particular people, le ”printemps érable.. was very smart and thanks that happen to quebec society, it should happen more often in this world of corruption lead by 1% , we know which community owns Canada but we can not tell yet.

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